CEOs are facing crunch time when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). There is a relentless amount of new information coming to light each day. However, digging into the news and reports reveals much that is conflicting and confusing. With the global hype machine on overdrive, how is a senior leader to figure out what is meaningful versus what’s hyperbole?

Looking at recent studies of what’s on the CEO’s mind provides little clarity – except, perhaps, to reveal the full-on existential crises most executives are living. The recent PwC Global CEO Survey, for example, hits at the heart of the dilemma senior leaders face:

– 45% are “not confident that their companies would survive more than a decade on their current path.”

– CEOs believe AI will lead to “huge productivity benefits,” but only 32% have broadly adopted it.

In other words, CEOs realize they need to change their organizations as soon as possible in order to build a sustainable future. They also view AI as a key driver in creating the organization of the future. Yet, they are still hesitant or at least cautious because of the enormous consequences of both action and inaction.

The benefits of AI implementation across organizations and society has many technologists and leaders salivating over the vast possibilities. Others, though, are fearful that companies are moving too fast without adequately addressing what these tools will do both to and for us.

Some headlines are filled with dread, which has a psychological impact on how people are reacting to AI in the workplace. United Nations chief António Guterres, for example, warned against what he labeled “runaway development of artificial intelligence without guardrails,” essentially leaving nations “powerless to act together.”

There are many reasons for hesitation, but many of these are human-centered factors, ranging from the cost associated with upskilling and reskilling employees to outright fear of how an AI-dominant future will upend people’s lives. These types of obstacles are being navigated while executives also attempt to balance how AI can bring short- and long-term efficiency gains. Then, there’s the elephant in the room – getting the entire company to navigate the deep strategic moves it will need to unlock AI’s full growth potential.

In light of all this noise, my fallback has been to use AI and ask team members to educate me on how they are using generative AI in their work. My study over the last year has given me some insight, which I want to share with you as a guide for your own AI plans. For those of us in the C-suite, what we do now and plan for strategically will define the trajectory of our organizations and define our competitive standing.

Driving AI strategy today

The first move every CEO must make is to assess the current state by asking a straightforward question: “Where are we today on our AI journey?” The primary consideration is to establish a baseline on current AI initiatives, understand projects that have an AI component, and evaluate the company’s AI maturity level. Based on the PwC poll results with some 70% of organizations yet to implement AI, you might find that your organization hasn’t yet begun or is only in its nascent stage.

No matter where you are right now, the second consideration is to ask your leadership team, “What quick efficiency gains can AI bring right now?” Whether potential wins are based on personal use or successes across teams, these benefits lay the foundation for more significant transformations.

These two initial questions will provide context and signal to your executive team that AI is a priority. What you learn can then be used to create the foundation for AI implementation.

5 actionable steps toward an AI strategy

AI initiatives are going to take decisive leadership from the top. CEOs should consider the following strategic moves to position their organizations for success:

  1. Comprehensive AI Readiness Assessment: Initiate an organization-wide assessment to gauge readiness, building on the outcomes from discussion with your leadership team members. Evaluate the existing technological infrastructure, data quality and your employees’ skill sets. Identify areas where AI can be seamlessly integrated to enhance efficiency, customer experiences and overall business outcomes.
  2. Establish a Cross-Functional AI Task Force: Integrate from the start by creating a task force from various departments, including IT, data science, operations, marketing and legal. Foster collaboration to ensure a holistic approach to AI implementation. Supercharge their efforts by aligning AI initiatives with business goals, while facilitating communication across different functions.
  3. Invest in Employee Training and Upskilling: Prioritize employee training programs to upskill your teams in AI-related technologies, data analytics and machine learning. Promote a culture of continuous growth to prepare your organization.
  4. Implement Ethical AI Guidelines: Acknowledge the ethical considerations associated with AI and establish clear guidelines for responsible AI usage. Ensure transparency in AI algorithms, work to mitigate biases and prioritize data privacy. Communicate these guidelines across the organization to build trust among employees, customers and other stakeholders.
  5. Start with Small, Strategic AI Pilots: Launch small-scale, strategic pilot projects to test AI applications in real-world scenarios. These programs enable your teams to learn, adapt and measure analytics before scaling up. Identify low-risk, high-impact areas where AI can deliver immediate value. Use these pilot projects as learning opportunities for your teams.

CEOs may feel compelled to act on AI for any number of reasons, from personal curiosity to the excitement of board members and others who view it as a panacea. The urgency, though, is real, but I caution you to put in the work personally, while also establishing the safety rails I outlined in the five steps above.

Understanding and making sense of AI as a CEO involves a holistic approach that combines strategic evaluation, stakeholder engagement, ethical considerations and a commitment to ongoing learning. A comprehensive perspective enables you to navigate the complexities of AI with confidence, while simultaneously ensuring that your organization harnesses AI’s full potential for growth and innovation.

About Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.